Unless your business has cornered the market—like it's the only grocery store in the middle of nowhere—then you've got competition. That's because virtually every business competes against some other business.
And while it may be intimidating, it's the nature of the beast. You and your competitors are all trying to get a piece of the same pie.
Most of the time, your friendly competition is just that—friendly. But every now and then, your competition can be downright scary. Because sometimes a nemesis can go after for you for what feels like truly personal reasons. For instance, a competitor badmouths you to customers or clients, suppliers and vendors, or maybe you've noticed that another business owner is specifically targeting you by underselling very similar products and services in an attempt to drive you out of business.
So what do you do when you feel as if a competitor is playing dirty? While there's no one right answer—everybody's opponents and situations are going to require different responses—here are five general guidelines that should serve you well.
1. React Quickly
If a competitor is coming after you, you need to determine how much of a threat they are—and fast. "It's a brutal marketplace and much more competitive than ever before, no matter what business vertical you're in, largely because everyone can access so much information and do it in a timely manner. What used to take months—to bring a competitor down—can now take place in hours," says Les Koll, a management consultant in Los Angeles.
You especially need to react quickly if you're competing with numerous other businesses on factors like price and convenience, according to Page West, a strategy and entrepreneurship professor at Wake Forest University School of Business in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. "I think customers are less interested in past relationships," West says. "You can't necessarily say to people, 'Oh, we've been doing business for such a long time. Stick with me, because of our history.' "
While you may ultimately decide that reacting to the threat is the worst thing you can do and you would be better served ignoring your competitor, doing nothing is still a decision and one you'll want to make quickly.
2. Don't Take Anything Personally
Your competitor may come after you for personal reasons, but the moment you respond to their actions in a personal way, you lose sight of the fact that you're running a company—which could ultimately doom your operation if your decision makes you feel better but actually makes little business sense.
And more often than not, whatever is going on isn't about you—it's about the other company. "You can't take anything personally or have a knee-jerk reaction to things. This is business, and anyone's allowed to open a store in town and do what they want with it," says Scott Anthony, who owns Punxsy Pizza in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, a community of 5,500 and 11 other pizza joints. That's about four times the normal amount of pizza parlors you'd expect to find in a town this size, Anthony says.
Fighting for customers among 11 other competitors can be a little stressful, but Anthony looks for the bright spots where he can. For instance, in order to attract more business, he accepts competitors' coupons. Even if the coupons are deeply discounted, he still sees it a victory for him. As he says, "I didn't have to spend the money on the printing or the advertising."
3. Remain Professional
This is a critical step, especially if a rivalry becomes public. Then it may be best to let the other side throw what they can at you while you rise above the situation and stay professional—and hope that they implode.
That's what certified divorce financial analyst Sandy Arons did when she found herself in the middle of an unpleasant situation. Arons is the founder and owner of Arons & Associates Divorce Planning, which helps divorcing couples settle their financial issues.
About a year ago, an associate in the divorce industry started telling mutual colleagues that she was unethical and a sham. The colleagues, members of a business networking group that Arons and her competitor were also members of, told Arons what the person had said, allowing Arons to defend herself.
But she didn't do much more than that—the advice she received was that this colleague was looking for trouble. Arons also recognized—having specialized in keeping arguing couples from going too far—that she didn't need the drama.
"In my business, I see things get ugly," Arons says, "and my whole philosophy is that you don't need to be in the mud, and you can be above it all."
Fortunately, that strategy worked for her. After about eight months, when the same individual tried to revive the trash talk, that person was asked to leave the networking group.
4. Engage Cautiously
Jana Glowatz is currently in the middle of a similarly unpleasant situation. In March 2013, she moved to Miami from New York City to work at a PR firm. She started at the firm in April, giddy with excitement, but by August, she'd left.
"The conditions under the ownership were, let's just say, reality show-worthy, and not in a good way," Glowatz says.
"So here I am in Miami for three months with no job and hardly any friends, and I had just spent all my savings on a move," says Glowatz, who decided her best move would be to start her own business, Jana Public Relations, which specializes in the fashion and accessories industries. As far as she's concerned, "It was the best thing I ever did."
But ever since she launched her new venture, she says her ex-boss has been harassing her and trying to poach clients. "I suppose she was threatened by the competition, and rightfully so," Glowatz says, "but she took to an Internet site about companies being ripoffs to bash me and my new business with lies and anything she could think of that would make me look like a horrible human being. I've never experienced anything like it, and it hurt just as much, if not more, than being picked on on a playground."
And the situation has, at times, resembled a playground. After her ex-boss tried poaching her clients, Glowatz says, "The way I stopped that was by cc'ing her mother, who worked at the company, in an email." So, yes, Glowatz tattled on her ex-boss—to the ex-boss's mother. Glowatz also threatened legal action, which may have been the action that really helped.
And while the ex-boss was most likely hoping the nasty comments about Glowatz would scare away clients, in one instance, at least, it's done the exact opposite. One of Glowatz's clients saw some rants about her—and signed up for her services in spite of them.
For now, Glowatz is keeping her head down and isn't trading fire with her ex-boss. "If you don't let the situation get to you," Glowatz says, "it takes away that bully's ammunition."
5. Be Prepared to Defend Yourself
Like it or not—fair or not—you may have to spend more of your business time than you'd care to beating back a competitor.
Harper started her PR firm, Harper PR, about three and a half years ago. "Within a few months, my former employer served me with papers," Harper says. "He was suing me. And not for a few measly dollars. He was trying to get me for $3.5 million."
She says he claimed she solicited one of his clients. "Not true," she says. "They contacted me to see if I'd be interested in working for them full time, to which I said, 'No.' "
The case didn't go to court, but in the meantime, Harper spend $7,000 in legal fees defending herself. It was a frightening time for her, she says. She'll never forget her attorney explaining what her ex-employer was attempting: "Think about it as if you're sitting in a boat on the lake. He's throwing stones into the boat to sink you in hopes you won't survive."
All in all, her first year in business was a harrowing one, but Harper says she's faring well. It's almost impossible, however, not to look back at that time and still feel shaken.
"Who would do that?" Harper wonders, a few years after the lawsuit. "I bent over backwards for this person. When I worked for him, I put in 16-hour days, brought in business and was committed to helping his company. How could someone be so awful?"
She may never know the answers to her questions. But what she does know is that by going after her, her former boss/now competitor only made her company stronger—or at least strengthened her resolve.
"He wanted me to fail," Harper says, "and that just motivated me to work harder to succeed."
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